Join us as on Jim Henson’s birthday as we remember this Disney Legend.
Groundbreaking puppeteer, filmmaker, and Disney Legend Jim Henson entered the world, with the same dream of his most beloved creation, Kermit the Frog—a dream “about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with.”
Lead photo courtesy of D23.
Born James Murray Henson in Greenville, MS, Jim Henson spent most of his childhood with his family in the Washington, D.C. area. Henson spent his younger years fostering his growing interest in entertainment media, particularly in TV and puppetry.
As a child and teenager, he could often be found creating original storylines and putting on performances for his peers and family.
As a college freshman at the University of Maryland, he was selected to work with his local NBC affiliate station on a bi-weekly special titled Sam and Friends, where he continued to work until he created a certain memorable green frog.
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Jim Henson’s creation of the Muppets really grew out of some of his work on Sam and Friends. It was on this NBC special where he developed an early version of Kermit the Frog, and well, the rest was history.
Sam and Friends went on to receive a local Emmy Award just three years after Henson joined the team in 1958, and shortly after this recognition, Henson went on to found the Jim Henson Company.
Early versions of other Muppets began to pop up in commercials (still on a local basis) in the years prior to Henson making them officially “Muppets “ as we know them today. For instance, a puppet named “Wheel Stealer” appeared in both snack commercials and later an IBM ad where he was seen munching on computer parts.
“Wheel Stealer” was a preliminary version of Cookie Monster.
The Muppets first made it in a national broadcast in 1963 with an appearance of Rowlf the Dog on the Jimmy Dean Show in 1963. During the show, Rowlf was accompanied by Don Sahlin, renowned puppet builder with the Jim Henson Company, and Frank Oz.
(Oz began his entertainment career as a puppeteer in the Jim Henson Company, though he later went on to direct such films as The Dark Crystal and is perhaps most known for his voicework for Yoda in Star Wars).
The Muppet Show
As the Jim Henson Company grew, so did the international exposure of Henson’s puppets, resulting in national appearances on both the Ed Sullivan Show and The Today Show, all before the debut of The Muppet Show. Also during this time, Henson joined the Sesame Street team as a producer for the hit children’s show.
The first episode of The Muppet Show aired in 1976, and at that point the Muppet franchise featured many of the fan-favorite characters we know and love today, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Gonzo.
Right from the beginning, The Muppet Show was a huge success, eventually taking in over 235 million viewers across 100 countries. The celebrity cameos we are still accustomed to in Muppet productions today also began with The Muppet Show, with guests like Sir Elton John and Steve Martin.
The first Muppet Movie premiered in 1979, and thanks to its success, it was followed shortly after by a variety of spin-offs, first with Muppet Babies. But as Disney fans today are certainly aware, the spin-offs and specials have never ended.
In fact, the latest one is coming to Disney+ soon with Muppets Haunted Mansion!
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Outside of The Muppets, Henson’s puppeteering skills were put to work for cult-classic films like The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986).
Fans did not know it at the time, but Muppet*Vision 3D was the last project Henson worked on prior to his death on May 16, 1990. The show was really a small achievement in the span of Henson’s career, but it has a large following of Disney fans who continue to visit it in all its 1991 nostalgic glory today at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The original concept for the show went beyond just the 3D attraction, as it would have encompassed an entire Muppet-themed land, complete with a ride and restaurant all themed to our favorite puppet franchise. We did eventually get the restaurant with the addition of PizzaRizzo in 2016, but we are still daydreaming of a Muppet ride!
As we remember Jim Henson’s birthday, we are especially grateful for the lifelong friends he gave to us in each of the Muppets.